THE VOICE OF INTERNATIONAL LITHUANIA
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Hanseatic ships from Germany, Scandinavia and other European countries sailed during the 13th – 17th
centuries precisely here, along the endless, white sand beaches that so significantly
characterize the Lithuanian, Latvian and Estonian Baltic Sea coast.
Photo: Aage Myhre
EXPLORING EUROPE (8 of 10)
A Hanseatic route
through the Baltic States
guide, writer and photographer: Aage Myhre
VilNews is on its way around Europe!
journey starts in the 'Danish city' of
Tallinn, Estonia. We drive from there
The Hanseatic League was an economic alliance of trading cities and their merchant guilds that dominated trade along the coast of Northern Europe. It stretched from the Baltic to the North Sea and inland during the Late Middle Ages and early modern period (c. 13th–17th centuries).
The League was created to protect commercial interests and privileges granted by foreign rulers in cities and countries the merchants visited. The Hanseatic cities had their own legal system and furnished their own protection and mutual aid. Despite this, the organization was not a city-state, nor can it be called a confederation of city-states; only a very small number of the cities within the league enjoyed autonomy and liberties comparable to those of a free imperial city.
Estonian and Latvian cities reaped huge profits from Hanseatic trade. Their connections to the Hansa were stronger than Lithuanian contacts because there were a large proportion of Germans in Livonia. Lithuania, on the other hand, retained its independence as the Grand Duchy of Lithuania and eventually came under Polish rule. German settlers were unwelcome in Lithuania and local peasants had more control over their own lands and product than in Livonia, where higher profits could be made by Hansamerchants. Nonetheless, the Grand Duchy of Lithuania was an important supplier of agricultural products and forest products from the banks of the Daugava to the Hansathrough the Livonian Hansa port at Riga..
Lübeck in northern Germany became a main base for merchants from Saxony and Westphalia trading eastward and northward. Well before the term Hanse appeared in a document (1267), merchants in different cities began to form guilds or Hansa with the intention of trading with towns overseas, especially in the economically less-developed eastern Baltic. This area was a source of timber, wax, amber, resins, furs, along with rye and wheat brought down on barges from the hinterland to port markets. The towns raised their own armies, with each guild being required to provide levies when needed. The Hanseatic cities came to each other's aid, and commercial ships often had to be used to carry soldiers and their arms.
Lübeck's location on the Baltic provided access for trade with Scandinavia and Kiev Rus, putting it in direct competition with the Scandinavians who had previously controlled most of the Baltic trade routes. A treaty with the Visby Hansa put an end to competition: through this treaty the Lübeck merchants also gained access to the inland Russian port of Novgorod, where they built a trading post or Kontor. Other such alliances formed throughout the Holy Roman Empire. Yet the League never became a closely managed formal organisation. Assemblies of the Hanseatic towns met irregularly in Lübeck for a Hansetag (Hanseatic Diet), from 1356 onwards, but many towns chose not to send representatives and decisions were not binding on individual cities. Over time, the network of alliances grew to include a flexible roster of 70 to 170 cities.
Riga joined the Hanseatic League in 1282, and become the first Hanseatic City in Livonia. Tallinn was the next Livonian city to join the group. In Lithuania, local merchants were subject to the laws of the grand Duchy of Lithuania and were free to conduct trade with Hansa merchants, but the Hansa merchants found it difficult to secure a monopoly on Lithuanian trade. The Grand Duchy of Lithuania was hostile to the Germans after attempts at conquest. Tariffs were exacted at the Lithuanian borders with Poland and Livonia. Hansa merchants were tolerated, if they paid their tariffs, and developed trade routes through Lithuania all the way down to the Bug river where the Ukraine is today.
At the start of the 16th century, the League found itself in a weaker position than it had known for many years. The rising Swedish Empire had taken control of much of the Baltic. Denmark had regained control over its own trade, the Kontor in Novgorod had closed, and the Kontor in Bruges had become effectively moribund. The individual cities which made up the League had also started to put self-interest before their common Hanseatic interests. Finally, the political authority of the German princes had started to grow—and so to constrain the independence of action which the merchants and Hanseatic towns had enjoyed. By the late 16th century, the League had imploded and could no longer deal with its own internal struggles, the social and political changes that accompanied the Protestant Reformation, the rise of Dutch and English merchants, and the incursion of the Ottoman Empire upon its trade routes and upon the Holy Roman Empire itself. Only nine members attended the last formal meeting in 1669 and only three (Lübeck, Hamburg and Bremen) remained as members until its final demise in 1862.
Tallinn, capital city of Estonia, was the northernmost city of the Hanseatic League.
Estonia is the northernmost Baltic State. It is bordered to the north by the Gulf of Finland, to the west by the Baltic Sea, to the south by Latvia (343 km), and to the east by Lake Peipsi and the Russian Federation (338.6 km). Across the Baltic Sea lies Sweden in the west and Finland in the north. The territory of Estonia covers 45,227 km2 (17,462 sq mi), and is influenced by a temperate seasonal climate. The Estonians are a Finnic people, and the official language Estonian, is closely related to Finnish.
Estonia is a democratic parliamentary republic divided into 15 counties. The capital and largest city is Tallinn. With a population of 1.34 million, Estonia is one of the least-populous members of the European Union, Eurozone and NATO. Estonia has the highest GDP per person among former Soviet republics. Estonia is listed as a "High-Income Economy" by the World Bank, as an "advanced economy" by the International Monetary Fund and the country is an OECD member. The United Nations lists Estonia as a developed country with a Human Development Index of "Very High". The country is also ranked highly for press freedom, economic freedom, democracy and political freedom and education.
There are seven Hanseatic League towns in Estonia and each summer everyone is welcome to join the Hanseatic Days which recreate the spirit of that era. On Hanseatic days people dress up in medieval clothing, cook medieval food and play medieval games and music. Handmade goods are offered at the medieval market. Masters demonstrate, and apprentices learn, how to make things using leather, wool, rope, cloth, wood, twigs and clay. These sessions are a lot of fun and highly educational – perfect for families.
Tallinn’s St. Olaf's church was the tallest building in the world between 1549 and 1625.
Tallinn – the medieval 'Danish town’ that had the world's first Christmas tree
Tallinn means supposedly ‘The Walled Danish City 'in Estonian.
was in 1219 that Danish crusaders, under the command of King Valdemar II (the
victorious), won the crucial battle over Estonia’s pagans. During the last
phase of this battle, says the legend, God gave the Danes the win by letting a
red banner with a white cross fall from the sky, over the hard-pressed
Crusaders. Inspired by this 'divine miracle' the Danes strength came back
and they won the battle. The Danes are thus still ‘in debt’ to Estonia for
its flag, Dannebrog, the world's oldest state flag still in use. The name
Tallinn means supposedly the walled Danish city’. In Estonian, the legacy of
Denmark lives, even today.
In 1285 Tallinn became the northernmost member of the Hanseatic League, which during the 1300s concerned the Danish kings more and more. The Hanseatic League power grew, and in 1346 the Danes ‘gave in’ and sold Tallinn, along with large areas of land in northern Estonia, to the Teutonic Order. The city, with a population of 8000, was at that time very well entrenched within a strong city wall with 66 defense towers.
In contrast to other capitals in Europe, Tallinn managed to preserve the totality and the structures of its medieval and Hanseatic origin. Most of the cobbled streets are still as they once were. Buildings, dated as far back as the 11th century, are preserved in their original form.
The City Hall - Town Hall Square - stands still, after seven centuries, as the ancient, well preserved heart of the city. The City Hall itself, the only intact Gothic town hall in Northern Europe, is now a museum and concert hall.
The Town Hall Square is also known for something Estonians themselves claim is a historical fact, that it was here the world's very first Christmas tree was born. Here Christmas lights were lit already in 1441...
The medieval feeling creeps over me as we walk along the old city wall and its 26 watchtowers. We stop at the narrow Müürivahe Street (near Viru Gate) where the old wall has been preserved in its original form. Further medieval I'm hardly ever.
Jūrmala is a resort town in Latvia, about 25 kilometres west of Riga. Jūrmala is a stretching
32 kilometres (20 mi) along the amazing beaches, with a population of 55,580.
Latvia is the Baltic State 'in the middle'. It is bordered to the north by Estonia (border length 343 km), to the south by Lithuania (588 km), to the east by the Russian Federation (276 km), to the southeast by Belarus (141 km), and shares maritime borders to the west with Sweden. With 2,067,887 inhabitants and a territory of 64,589 km2 (24,938 sq mi) it is one of the least populous and least densely populated countries of the European Union. The capital of Latvia is Riga. The official language is Latvian and the currency is called Lats (Ls).
The Latvians are a Baltic people, culturally related to the Lithuanians. Together with the Finno-Ugric Livs (or Livonians), the Latvians are the indigenous people of Latvia. Latvian is an Indo-European language and along with Lithuanian the only two surviving members of the Baltic branch. Indigneous minority languages are Latgalian and the nearly extinct Finno-Ugric Livonian language. Latvia and Estonia share a long common history: historical Livonia, times of German, Polish-Lithuanian, Swedish, Russian, Nazi German and Soviet rule, 13th century Christianization and 16th century Protestant Reformation. Both countries are home to a large number of ethnic Russians (26.9% in Latvia and 25.5% in Estonia) of whom some are non-citizens. Latvia is historically predominantly Protestant, except for the region of Latgalia in the southeast which is historically predominantly Roman Catholic.
Latvia is a unitary parliamentary republic and is divided into 118 administrative divisions of which 109 municipalities and 9 cities. There are five planning regions: Courland (Kurzeme), Latgalia (Latgale), Riga (Rīga), Vidzeme and Zemgale. The Republic of Latvia was founded on November 18, 1918. It was occupied and annexed by the Soviet Union between 1940–1941 and 1945–1991 and by Nazi Germany between 1941–1945. The peaceful "Singing Revolution" between 1987 and 1991 and "Baltic Chain" demonstration on August 23, 1989 led to the independence of the Baltic states. Latvia declared the restoration of its de facto independence on August 21, 1991.
Latvia is a member of the United Nations, European Union, Council of Europe, NATO, OSCE, IMF and WTO, and is part of the Schengen Area. It was a member of the League of Nations (1921–1946) and the Baltic Free Trade Area (1994–2004). Latvia is also a member of the Council of the Baltic Sea States and Nordic Investment Bank, and is together with Estonia and Lithuania involved in trilateral Baltic States cooperation and Nordic-Baltic cooperation.
After economic stagnation in the early 1990s, Latvia posted Europe-leading GDP growth figures during 1998–2006. In the global financial crisis of 2008–2010 Latvia was the hardest hit of the European Union member states, with a GDP decline of 26.54% in that period. Commentators noted signs of stabilisation in the Latvian economy by 2010. The United Nations lists Latvia as a country with a Human Development Index (HDI) of "Very High".
Riga – the Hanseatic city that became the world's leading Art Nouveau Centre
The Town Hall Square in Riga.
is the largest Baltic city. Around 700,000 live here. Riga is located
at the mouth of the Daugava River, which has functioned as a trade route since
ancient days. From here the Viking ships sailed up the rivers on their way
to the Caspian Sea and Constantinople, today's Istanbul. Riga's history
goes back to the 2nd century, but began to develop as a centre when the
Viking trade took off in the early Middle Ages. In 1282 Riga became a
member of the Hanseatic League. Hansa was instrumental in giving Riga
economic and political stability, and the town has retained its position as the
energy point of the Baltic Sea's southeastern shore.
Still today is part of the old wall from the 14th century intact. Most of the wall was originally removed to give the city room for expansion. As for the other two Baltic capitals, the old town is interesting. Soviet buildings outside the city centre is just sad stuff. Just a shame you see them too well when you drive into the old town; where cobbled streets, gabled houses, churches, shops and restaurants are creating a phenomenally warm, good atmosphere.
When I first came here to the old town, in January 1991, it was freezing cold outside. But the Latvians had lit bonfires, many, and made themselves a human wall around the parliament to prevent the Soviet forces, who stood around, to come in. It was while I was in Parliament here that I experienced the Soviet Union's propaganda lies. When I was in the Parliament the 17th of January 1991, Soviet television reported that their soldiers had taken over the parliament building. I, and many others, were inside the building, listening in disbelief as no single Soviet soldier was to see inside.
At the end of the 1800s, many European traders settled in Riga. They left their distinctive marks on the city, not least by raising many buildings in Art Nouveau style. This was the original French genre reflecting creative freedom; classic elements interwoven with flowing lines and decorative shapes and objects.
Riga is said to contain the largest concentration of Art Nouveau buildings in the world. And the Art Nouveau architecture in Riga is truly fascinating. Many buildings have been restored in full glory, as they were built during the years 1894-1914. There are over 800 Art Nouveau buildings here, which makes it extremely interesting to walk around the streets here. I am overwhelmed by these wonders.
The Hanseatic Riga Port.
Photos: Aage Myhre.
Lithuania is the southernmost and largest of the three Baltic states. It is situated along the southeastern shore of the Baltic Sea, whereby to the west lie Sweden and Denmark. It borders Latvia to the north, Belarus to the east and south, Poland to the south, and a Russian exclave (Kaliningrad Oblast) to the southwest. Lithuania has an estimated population of 3.2 million as of 2011, and its capital and largest city is Vilnius. The Lithuanians are a Baltic people, and the official language, Lithuanian, is one of only two living languages (together with Latvian) in the Baltic branch of the Indo-European language family.
For centuries, the southeastern shore of the Baltic Sea was inhabited by various Baltic tribes. In the 1230s the Lithuanian lands were united by Mindaugas, who was crowned as King of the Grand Duchy of Lithuania, the first Lithuanian state, on 6 July 1253. During the 14th - 16th century, Grand Duchy of Lithuania was the largest country in Europe: present-day Belarus, Ukraine, and parts of Poland and Russia were territories of the Grand Duchy of Lithuania. With the Lublin Union of 1569, Lithuania and Poland formed a voluntary two-state union, the Polish–Lithuanian Commonwealth. The Commonwealth lasted more than two centuries, until neighbouring countries systematically dismantled it from 1772 to 1795, with the Russian Empire annexing most of Lithuania's territory.
In the aftermath of World War I, Lithuania's Act of Independence was signed on 16 February 1918, declaring the re-establishment of a sovereign state. Starting in 1940, Lithuania was occupied first by the Soviet Union and then by Nazi Germany. As World War II neared its end in 1944 and the Germans retreated, the Soviet Union reoccupied Lithuania.
On 11 March 1990, the year before the break-up of the Soviet Union, Lithuania became the first Soviet republic to declare independence. Prior to the global financial crisis of 2007–2010, Lithuania had one of the fastest growing economies in the European Union. Lithuania is a member of NATO, the Council of Europe, and the European Union. Lithuania is also a full member of the Schengen Agreement. The United Nations Human Development Index lists Lithuania as a "Very High Human Development" country. In 2011, Lithuania hosted the European men's basketball championship, EuroBasket 2011, and the OSCE Ministerial Council Meeting.
Klaipeda – Lithuania's 'German' port city, at the best Baltic Sea beaches
Photo: Aage Myhre.
image of the Baltic States as dull, gray and
Soviet like is very much incorrect. This I learned already during my
first visit here in 1990. Still, it surprised me to come to Klaipeda,
a city quite different from the other Lithuanian cities. More German
looking in a way. I soon learned that the Lithuanian port
city once was called Memel and that the area out
here on the Baltic Sea coast some time ago belonged
A trip from Vilnius to Klaipeda takes less than three hours on the 4-lane motorway. But the difference in architectural style is as if to drive from Florence to Hamburg....
Klaipeda was founded in 1252, and in this old town you can see many, many buildings that each tells stories about the life and development over 700 years. Houses with timber frames and masonry, some pure brick houses, adorn the cobblestone streets side by side. Lithuania's 10 mil-long coast has also the Baltic Sea's most beautiful sandy beaches. The two picturesque tourist towns, Nida and Palanga, are located just a few kilometres away from here.
Photos: Aage Myhre.
Kaunas – the Hanseatic trading point at the Nemunas River
House of Perkunas (God of thunder and the sky), the most original and archaic Gothic
secular building in the Old Town of Kaunas. Originally built by Hanseatic
merchants, serving as their office from 1440 till 1532.
Since the end of the 14th century, Lithuania's trading relationships with Königsberg and, especially, Danzig, which became the most popular of the Hanseatic towns in Northern and Eastern Europe, got increasingly significant. Lithuania and Danzig started their trading relationships already at the end of the 14th century. During Vytautas' term of office, Lithuania and Danzig maintained regular relationships. The waterway Nemunas (Lithuania’s largest river) - Kaunas Sea - Deimė - Prieglius - Aismarės - Vistula was the way transporting cheap staples from Lithuania to Danzig, which greatly profited the intermediates.
In order to improve accessibility of cheap goods, by the advantageous Nemunas quay the Hanseatic counting-house was established. The main outbound goods were wax, fur, leather, wood, mould, tar, and, since the 15th century, grain. What Kaunas used to receive was other goods, such as salt, which could not be substituted, and also ironware and baize. The office was open till the middle of the 16th century, and these were the most glorious and the most venerable times of Western Europe's city Kaunas.
Kaunas is the sole Lithuanian town that belongs to 'The new Hansa Union' that was established in 1980. It is an organisation of economically and politically active member-cities of the old Hanseatic League that aim for close cooperation. At the moment, the organisation unites more than 170 European towns.
Every year, Kaunas presents itself at the annual event of the union "International Hansa Days" by introducing the heritage of cuisine, folk art, music, theatre, etc. Furthermore, since 2005, at the end of August, Kaunas draws crowds of people from the entire Lithuania, who can admire the unique Kaunas Old Town and lose themselves in the Middle Ages, i.e. try armour, play medieval games, taste the old European dishes, listen to the troubadours' songs, wield a sword, enjoy watching the night's sky coloured by amazing fireworks, and a lot more.
The public institution "Hansa Kaunas" and Kaunas local government that organise the festival already for the fourth time have managed to achieve that the festival be known not only in Lithuania but also outside. Now the event has become the priority of the town and it now has gained its face, traditions and lots of devoted supporters.
The festival has broadened: on the stage one can see not only Lithuanian performers but also guest artists from Germany, Poland, Russia, Latvia, Estonia, Belarus, Norway and Holland. Moreover, three documentary films have already been produced. Financing is increased as more and more supporters are found. Appropriations of both the local government and the Government of the Republic of Lithuania have been increased.
Kaunas castle is the oldest masonry castle in Lithuania. It was first mentioned in documents in year 1361.
Since the end of the 14th century, Lithuania's trading relationships with Königsberg and, especially, Danzig, which became the most popular of the Hanseatic towns in Northern and Eastern Europe, got increasingly significant. Lithuania and Danzig started their trading relationships already at the end of the 14th century.
During Vytautas' term of office, Lithuania and Danzig maintained regular relationships. The waterway
Nemunas (Lithuania’s largest river) - Kaunas Sea - Deimė - Prieglius - Aismarės - Vistula was the way transporting cheap staples from Lithuania to Danzig, which greatly profited the intermediates.
Photos: Aage Myhre.
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